It's a small renovation project that has been in progress for a whopping six years - usually not a good sign. It's a private space not open to the public. And it's designed by someone who is not technically a licensed architect. Yet the Lumber room is a welcome, impressive space that provides a key connection for Portland's burgeoning art and design communities.
The Lumber Room is interesting in that its program is a blend of public and private space, residential and exhibition. Owned and spearheaded by one of the city's foremost art collectors, Sarah Miller Meigs, it will serve as a residence for for visiting artists, a space for lectures by notable cultural figures, a gathering hub for major collectors and art enthusiasts, and a showcase for Meigs' hugely impressive contemporary art collection. When I visited the space last week as part of an opening reception for the Lumber Room's first artist in residence, Leoni Guyer, there were museum-caliber works on the wall by Tracey Emin, Agnes Martin, Donald Judd, Louise Bourgeois and Kiki Smith.
Meigs, who lives in Corvallis (her husband teaches at Oregon State University), is the heir the founders of the Stimson Lumber Company. Although the Lumber Room name takes its cue from a book of essays by Nicholson Baker, The Size of Thoughts: Essays and Other Lumber (in which "lumber" is a term roughly meaning the physical embodiment of ideas and expression), it also made a nice nod to the family business that has helped to bankroll this nearly matchless private local art collection (the Schnitzer family being probably the only Oregonian with one greater).
Meigs hired designer Randy Higgins of Vizwerks to handle architectural responsibilities and tapped Nicole Misiti of the local strategic branding firm Felt Hat to design interior furnishings and a business branding strategy.
Higgins is trained as an architect (with an architecture degree from the University of Washington), but not registered as such. He was one of the three original partners of Holst Architecture, and was highly involved in some key early projects there for clients like the Pacific Northwest College of Art and the Oregon Ballet Theater. I've known Randy for several years, and he's also one of the smartest, most intellectually capable people I've ever met; the guy quotes ancient philosophers and architects at the drop of a hat. (You can also read this previous post about him: "Audience With Higgins" from February 2008.)
[In full disclosure, Randy Higgins and I are both part of leading the Friends of Memorial Coliseum, the grassroots group seeking to preserve the building and its interior. Another member of that group, Don Rood, is a partner in The Felt Hat along with Misiti. So you can take my word about The Lumber Room with a grain of salt because of those connections. But I hope it's clear that I wouldn't be writing about the project, and praising it, unless I was sincere and the project was deserving on its own merits - which it is.]
Ironically, for all the time it took to complete the project, what I responded to was its simplicity. The space, part of a building constructed in 1924 as an auto repair garage. More recently, it was a large condo, owned by esteemed local art collector Ed Cauduro.
The Lumber Room's main exhibit space overlooking Ninth Avenue in the Pearl District (just above Elizabeth Leach Gallery) benefits from high ceilings and a minimal amount of columns. The wood ceiling rafters are left exposed, as are the wood floors. But like most any gallery, it's just a big, white-walled open space: a platform for Meigs' collection.
A restaurant-quality open kitchen serves as the connecting spine with the more intimately scaled portions of the Lumber Room, a trio of smaller bedroom-sized rooms and a deck looking out at the Pearl. These three small rooms border each other in part with glass walls, allowing one to stand in one room and look through the other two out to the view outside.
In conversation with Randy Higgins, he emphasized that the overriding narrative was one of nothingness. Because the Lumber Room is viewed principally as an artist-in-residence and exhibit space, Higgins and Misiti sought to make the architecture and interiors disappear in deference to both the art and also to allow visiting artists to leave the outside world behind.
"What Sarah is giving to an artist is that, unlike other residencies, there is no expectation. It’s intentionally wide open. It sounds paradoxical, but what she was giving was nothing," he said.
Citing writer Lewis Hyde, Higgins spoke of the "gift economy" (based on Hyde's 1983 book The Gift) and the notion that the Lumber Room was a place to make art or to not make art - that was its value. Most residency programs trade the lodging for a promised piece of art or a speech. Here, the idea is for the Lumber Room to be an incubator, a retreat - or whatever else (within reason - no Zach Randolph stuff) the visitor decides.
"It's when someone is allowed to have certain thoughts that may or may not lead anywhere," Higgins added. "If they produce, great, but if not, it’s the having the thoughts that’s valuable. To me, that’s what inquiry is about. Without preconceptions, you accept wherever it leads. That’s what Sara's trying to provide for these artists."
Because the theme of the design is taking the visitor out of everyday surroundings and into a void-like space for viewing art or engaging in conversation, the designers sought to create architecture and interiors that also disappeared but, at the same time, had stories of their own, and thought put into every detail. Yet these intentions are deliberately subtle and hidden. A series of skylights, for example, seem to be well placed in relation to the entry stairway and the rest of the exhibit space; but it turns out that they're lined up with particular celestial constellations. Yet it's also not a familiar pastiche of top-selling building products like ipe wood or granite countertops.
"As a designer, when I look at buildings, I see catalog sheets: all the different products that went into it. It’s the diff between seeing a couch and seeing a Corbusier couch," Higgins says. "It’s like Robert Irwin talks about: seeing is forgetting the name of the thing seen. Subconsciously we’re conditioned…a lot of people get paid a lot of money to get you conditioned to see names. So we didn’t just pick a different style. Everything had to be considered in context."
The Lumber Room, along with a handful of other projects such as the paint job at PNCA he created out of a Rimbaud poem translated into a language of squares and rectangles, represents a turning point in Higgins career, out of architecture into a kind of design practice that is at once more rigidly research-based yet also with practical, people-oriented outcomes over conceptual gestures.
"I liken spaces to reading a book," Higgins says. "The only way you can read it is if all the words are spelled correctly and the type is laid out correctly – so the book disappears. Otherwise it breaks the trance. But the art of the typographer is understanding how to put that all together in a way where if you want to become conscious of a page, it rewards that consciousness. You tell the stories of buildings the same way, so that it goes away but, if someone wants to pay attention to it, it’s able to reward beyond the attention given. You want people to stop asking questions long before the answers run out."
As DK Row's April 24 story in The Oregonian about the Lumber Room addressed, the six years weren't due only to Higgins' meticulousness.
"One reason is that Meigs likes to take her time. She doesn't buy art impulsively. She is also married, the mother of two children and lives in Corvallis. Another reason is that even though Meigs and her team intended to finish the project within, say, two or three years, after a while, they realized: What's the rush?
'Doing things right takes time,' Misiti says.
Looking back, Meigs did not labor over her choice of designers because she found like-minded brains, people who more accurately approach their jobs as forums for personal expression and share an almost obsessive tendency to ruminate over the meaning and beauty of every object.
In other words, dozens of books were consumed, and countless debates, talks and meetings were held over coffee and meals, because Meigs, et al., weren't just tearing down walls and painting over Cauduro's old condo. They intended to create a perfectly crafted work of art that would house other works of art and welcome people who made art."
Row also talked with Portland Art Museum head curator Bruce Guenther about the importance of such a space. "This space will be different from a museum, galleries and colleges that bring in influential artists and others for a day or a week," he said. "It's not publicly accessible, yet it will enrich public life because of its programs and Sarah's willingness to make the space available to others."
Portland has a fairly respected generalist museum, it has numerous fine commercial galleries, academic venues and especially a burgeoning community of young artists. The Lumber Room can be a small but important piece the city lacks: facilities for artists, designers and other creatives from outside the city to come and spend time. This space will work ideally with programs like the Pacific Northwest College of Art's Ford Institute for Visual Education, which has brought a variety of visiting artists to town. The Lumber Room will help make Portland more of a destination for talented people. Meigs, Row writes, "plans to bring individuals only a connected patron can: artists, designers and other collectors from across the country, perhaps the world, for weeks-long residencies, lectures, private events and even exhibitions. Her artists and guests will stay at the sleek, minimal two-floor condo space that can be altered to suit its various uses. Once there, they'll work in an almost ideal setting of refinement, art and silence."
In that way, the project is much more than the sum of its lumber floors, columns and rafters-especially if you go looking for the complex detail behind the surface layer of familiar wood floored, white-walled simplicity.